We see from the Torah and from the Medrash that the sons of Yaakov, the Shivtei Koh, were both physically strong and very courageous. Shimon and Levi by themselves attacked the city of Shechem to avenge the kidnapping of their sister, Dinah, and killed every male in the city. In this week’s sedrah, Yehudah approached Yosef, ready to wage a war against him if he planned on going through with the detention of Binyomin, the youngest brother.
According to the Medrash, when Yosef persisted on holding onto Binyomin, Yehudah told Naftoli to survey Mitzrayim and see how many marketplaces there were. He ran through the area quickly and determined that there were 12. Yehudah said that he would destroy three of them by himself and the others should each wreck one marketplace. During this confrontation, Yehudah displayed acts of strength that shook up the entire land, causing buildings to collapse and even Paroh, the king of Mitzrayim, to fall off his throne. Such was the power and fearlessness shown by Yehudah and his brothers.
And yet, in one short moment all of this changed. The mighty seemed weak and the bold ones became meek. One brief sentence, a mere few words, transformed the entire scene. “And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, because they were left disconnected in embarrassment before him” (Bereishis 45:3). Yosef saw them stepping backwards in shame and now he had to speak to them in a soft, comforting tone. How did Yosef’s making himself known to his brothers cause such a drastic change to the entire situation?
The Chofetz Chaim related that when he was staying in Vilna in his youth, he heard of the following: The great gaon, Rav Shaul Katzenelenbogen, was walking together with the gaon Rav Feivel, the Vilna Maggid, on the main avenue of the city. They were discussing the Heavenly Court that judges a person when he leaves this world. “Most certainly,” they said, “the dayanim who sit in the Bais Din Shel Maalah are tzaddikim from the same generation as the one who is being judged, for they understand the challenges and struggles that the people of that generation face and can pass down a more favorable judgment. But were they to be chachomim of previous generations, with much higher standards and expectations than the people being judged, we would not stand a chance of receiving a good verdict.”
Walking behind them and overhearing this discussion was a fine simple Jew who said to them, “Rabbosai, please forgive me for listening in on your conversation, but it seems to me that based on your conclusion, you will be the dayanim on that bais din. If so, I have a request. Why should I wait for you to judge me after I leave this world when I can no longer rectify my deeds? Instead, let me tell you about my life in the present so that you can judge me now. And if chas veshalom my conduct leaves something to be desired, I will be able to correct my deeds while I am still alive.”
The rabbonim were most impressed by the words of reason spoken with such sincerity. Rav Shaul turned to the maggid saying, “Since you are the one who admonishes the tzibbur, you should listen to this man’s deeds and judge him.” To this, the maggid answered with an anecdote: “I remember that when we were children,” he said, “we sat before our melamed with fear and great derech eretz. We were very serious, and no one would talk without permission or say anything that bordered on silliness. But from time to time, the melamed would leave the room for a short while and we turned back again into the lively mischievous children we were. We pretended that we were in the army. One of us played the general, another was a high-ranking officer, a third was his assistant, and the rest were regular soldiers. The soldiers saluted the officers and officers were subordinate to the general. Orders were given and punishments were meted out when necessary.
“But suddenly, the door would open and the melamed reappeared. Instantly, our entire army disappeared. There were no more officers, soldiers or generals, or orders or punishments. Reality had set in and we were back to being little children, afraid of the rebbi and sitting straight and obediently.”
The maggid continued: “Right now, it may seem like I am someone of stature, one who delivers sermons and reproaches others. Here I can pretend that I am worthy of judging others to determine if their conduct is right or wrong, but that is only as long as I am not facing a higher authority and I can’t pretend to be an authority myself. Pretty soon, though the door to the Olam Ha’emes, the World of Truth will open up and I will be forced to face the Bais Din Shel Maalah. Then reality will set in and it may become clear that I was merely putting on a show and that truthfully I am neither an authority nor worthy of judging others.”
The Chofetz Chaim used this story to elucidate the Medrash in this week’s parsha. On our posuk that says that the brothers could not answer Yosef because of their embarrassment, Rav Abba Kohein Bardala said, “Woe to us from the day of judgment, woe to us from the day of rebuke. If Yosef, the youngest of the shevotim, could not be faced by his brothers when he rebuked them, when Hashem will come to rebuke every individual according to his traits, surely we will not be able to face Him.”
Chazal looked at this climax of the confrontation between Yosef and his brothers as a portent for the moment of truth, the Yom Hadin that everyone will eventually have to face. Here the brothers committed a terrible act by selling Yosef as a slave. It brought misfortune to both Yosef, who was torn away from his father and his peaceful surroundings, and anguish to Yaakov Avinu, who mourned over his beloved son. Yet, the brothers continued their lives fully convinced that they were justified in doing what they did, for they had convened a bais din and paskened that Yosef relating their “sins” to Yaakov was deserving of this punishment.
Yosef, for his part, had already received his rebuke from Heaven for his misjudgment of his brothers. For stating that they ate “eiver min hachai,” the brothers slaughtered a young goat when he was sold. For relating that they mistreated the sons of the maids,l he was sold as a slave. And for saying that they acted immorally, he faced the nisayon from the wife of Potifar. But the brothers carried on their lives normally. Their conscience was clear and they continued to lead their lives in the darkness, unaware that the chain of events that was unfolding before them was a direct result of their misdeed.
Suddenly, like a powerful bolt of lightning in the middle of the night, the darkness was gone and reality had set in. This was Yosef standing before them. The very same Yosef they so despised. Surely, they had thought, he was out of their lives forever. But now they realized that his dreams had come true. He was a ruler and they had indeed bowed down to him just like his visions said they would. Now they realized that his dreams were not merely a result of his wishful thinking by day, but rather real prophecies. The veil had now been lifted and they were able to tell on his face that he was Yosef Hatzaddik, who was able to maintain his level of kedusha despite living all alone in a land full of idolatry and immorality.
They saw how Hashgacha had brought them all to Mitzrayim in different ways, and now they also recognized their great mistake. Suddenly, they were embarrassed about their jealousy and hatred of their brother. They were mortified at their plotting against him and mercilessly tearing him away from their father, Yaakov. Now they were able to sense somewhat the extent of the pain they caused and they felt deep shame for what they had done. They also saw how petty their grievances against him were, for in the overall scheme of things, their complaints were really insignificant.
The brothers’ might and courage enabled them to face the entire city of Shechemm and made it possible for them to destroy Mitzrayim if they wanted to, but there was one powerful force that they could not stand up to: the truth. To face the truth, to see that they had been mistaken all along, was a most bitter pill to swallow. Now, seeing the truth before them, they were frozen in fear and could not utter even one word.
The Medrash compares the meeting between Yehudah and Yosef to the days of Moshiach. On “Vayigash eilav Yehudah,” the Medrash quotes the posuk: “Behold the days are coming, the word of Hashem, when the plowman will meet the reaper” (Amos 9:13). The plowman is referring to Yehudah and the reaper is Yosef. The brothers were jealous of Yosef. They felt that he was reaping the benefits of life without having to work very hard. They felt that he was beloved by Yaakov more than any of them without having earned this distinction. They felt like their mother Leah was not as beloved to their father. Little did they realize that Yosef’s fortune came at a steep price, always craving the love of his brothers and having to go down to Mitzrayim all alone.
Yosef, for his part, as the favorite son, did not fully appreciate his brothers’ greatness, reporting their failings to Yaakov. But they were all united and able to see clearly how they were part of Hashem’s plan to bring the Jewish nation to Mitzrayim.
So it will be when Moshiach comes. Nowadays, there are divisions amongst us, often based on jealousy, suspicions and pettiness. Those of us who are more fortunate in life, whether in material or spiritual matters, might sometimes be judgmental of those who are less fortunate or just plain different from them. And those who are less fortunate do not realize that life is not a picnic for the more fortunate either. On the outside, it may seem like for them life is all peaches and cream, but in reality, they, too, have their own personal struggles that they have to cope with. On that great day when Moshiach comes, we will all rejoice and become united, but it will come with embarrassment. We will look back and see how trivial our bickerings were and we will wonder, “Why couldn’t we all get along?”
The story of Yosef and his brothers is all about sinas chinom. Why is it called hatred for no reason when I believe that I have a very serious gripe against someone? Because if we view our cause to the background of the entire picture, we realize that it is insignificant. Of course there are disagreements in life, but those must be settled al pi halacha. Sinas chinom, however, together with disparaging another Yid, is prohibited and destructive. If we realize that the person who we perceive to have wronged us is a holy Jew with a holy neshamah, and one who also serves Hashem, then our perspective would change.
Very often, our arguments are based on our own subjectivity. It would do us some good to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes and see things from another perspective.
And if we are talking about fighting for a true cause, those who are really doing it l’sheim Shomayim do it with grace and good middos, trying hard not to hurt anyone personally or speak lashon hara. Let us learn this lesson from the Shivtei Koh, treating each other with respect and saving ourselves from embarrassment when the veil is lifted and the truth becomes known with the arrival of the geulah very soon